What to Do with All Those Pantry Staples

Illustrated pantry staples
Illustrations by Eric DeFreitas

Many of us have stocked our pantries with long-lasting essentials to carry us through an unsure immediate future. But now what? What do you do with all those beans?

Thankfully, basic ingredients don’t need to result in basic meals.

We’re here to help with an equally impressive stockpile of suggestions for ways to transform some of the most common pantry items into surprisingly delicious creations.

Rice

Rice illustration

There are dozens of types of rice, and, with most common pantry items in limited supply, now is a good time to give unfamiliar types a try. Most have a more interesting flavor and texture than traditional long-grain white rice.

Yet even simple steamed rice can be transformed by stirring in a few well-chosen ingredients. Try butter, parmesan and black pepper; prepared pesto sauce and chopped green beans; almonds, cilantro, raisins and Indian spices or curry powder; and fried onions, garlic and frozen peas.

Cold leftovers are perfect for fried rice, but there are many options beyond the Chinese styles, including Korean bokkeumbap, Filipino sinangag and phodnicha bhaat from Maharashtra, India.

You can also mix cooked rice with ground beef or lentils, onion and cheese for a filling for stuffed peppers or tomatoes. Add a little egg and cheese to make fried rice patties or croquettes. And don’t forget rice pudding, a classic comfort food!

Beans

beans illustration

Canned beans are a pantry staple, but it’s easy—and tastier—to cook and freeze big batches of dried beans. To freeze cooked beans, pack two cups into freezer bags, with just enough cooking liquid to cover. When you’re ready to enjoy them, just empty contents into a saucepan and warm through. Voila!

You can use black, pinto or white beans interchangeably in most recipes, and there is much to make beyond chili and burritos. Whip up a bean dip by puréeing drained beans with sautéed onion and garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, cumin and lime juice or vinegar. Use black or pinto beans instead of garbanzos in falafel or hummus. Mix equal parts black beans and feta with all the chopped sturdy veggies you have—cucumbers, red peppers, jicama, tomatoes, corn—for a main-dish salad.

Or, make hearty black-bean burgers by sautéeing an onion, bell pepper and four garlic cloves, and add to a food processor with 32 ounces (or two cans) of drained beans, one cup bread crumbs, two eggs, and chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Shape into patties and fry, grill or bake.

Lentils

Lentils illustration

If you associate lentils with bland hippie soups, there’s a world to discover. Besides the common brown lentils, look for black and green lentils, which hold their shape when cooked, or red or yellow lentils—common in Indian cooking—which cook up quick and soft.

Make a better lentil soup by investigating Indian, Arabic, Greek and Ethiopian versions. They’re a great base for improvised pantry salads, marrying well with bacon, nuts, sturdy greens, crunchy veggies, raw and caramelized onions, herbs and pestos, and feta or goat cheeses.

Try lentil Sloppy Joes, a kid- and pantry-friendly recipe—just use two cups cooked lentils in place of ground beef. In fact, the unique texture of well-drained cooked lentils makes them a good substitute for ground beef in tacos, meatballs and pasta sauces like Bolognese as well. And we are big fans of lentil stews, like this, this and this.

Freezer Vegetables

Illustration freezer vegetables

Many vegetables stand up well to freezing, and the process “locks in” nutrients. Firm vegetables that you plan to cook are best—broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, butternut squash—and we have suggestions for three of our favorite frozen vegetables.

Peas are almost always sweeter frozen than fresh, as the sugars start converting to starch right after harvest. They benefit from a quick blanch, but can even be used raw. Serve with leftover chicken, in a pea salad or a pea-basil spread.

Frozen spinach is ideal for packed fridges since it takes up so much less space than fresh (a 10-ounce package is equivalent to a pound of fresh spinach). Think spanakopita, spinach dip or frittata.

Brussels sprouts are usually cheaper to buy frozen than fresh and, once cooked and seasoned, it’s hard to tell the difference. Try them sautéed, roasted or as a warm salad with wilted greens.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter illustration

If you haven’t had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a while, it might be just the comfort food you need at this time. Or, you can try a savory peanut butter sandwich, with bacon, canned jalapeños and sliced fresh tomato or a slick of jelly (tip: bacon and peanut butter is always good).

Make pantry peanut sauce with about four parts peanut butter to one part each of rice vinegar or lime juice, honey or maple syrup, and light soy sauce or tamari. Add minced garlic, ginger and/or chili pepper, thin with water, and use as a sauce for vegetables, chicken, pork or noodles.

African groundnut stew, a blend of peanut butter, chicken broth, canned tomatoes, sweet potatoes, greens and spices, is a revelation. Or, melt a little peanut butter into any coconut milk curry, stir it into oatmeal, or add it to banana milkshakes and smoothies.

Finally, peanut butter cookies are easy, especially the three-ingredient cookie made with sugar and egg, delicious, and are especially great for whipping up in small batches.

Published on March 26, 2020
Topics: Food